Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


As I look back over my periodic musings about film people who have passed on, it occurs to me that I have been way too Hollywood-centric. Let’s try to correct that a bit this week.

Three lives and only one death (1941-2011)

My fondest memories of the Seattle International Film Festival go back to the 1980s. Back then it was all new to me. Every movie was an event or a discovery. I often had no idea about what I was going to see, except for a title, a country of origin and maybe the name of a director I had heard of—or, more likely, not. Some movies were thrilling. Some were challenging. And some were both.

One movie I went to see in those days in the venerable Egyptian Theatre was called Les Trois Couronnes du Matelot (Three Crowns of the Sailor). I went because its synopsis (something about a ghost ship) sounded interesting but also because the director was connected to two countries I had lived in. Raúl Ruiz was born in Puerto Montt and grew up in Valparaíso, two places in Chile I had visited during my year there. After the military coup against Salvador Allende in 1973, like many artistic types, Ruiz relocated abroad—specifically to France, where the spelling of his name changed to Raoul.

If I had thought that Three Crowns of the Sailor would a conventional horror movie or creepy entertainment, I was quickly disabused of that notion. Based on a legend from the Chilean island of Chiloé about a ghost ship called the Caleuche (sort of an Andean version of The Flying Dutchman), the film was essentially a tangle of interweaving stories, not unlike Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript. But despite its ostensibly supernatural premise, the numerous narratives in Three Crowns of the Sailor were nowhere near being what you would call fantastical. The setup was that a student senselessly murders a kindly friend and mentor, then wanders the streets until he meets a drunken sailor who offers him a job on a ship for three crowns and agreeing to listen to a whole bunch of stories. And then we’re off. I remember the movie as being very frustrating and very long, in the way that European art films of that era could frequently be. But I never forgot it. It was haunting in its own way as well as being a puzzle wrapped in an enigma.

The movie made enough of an impression that I watched for the name Raoul Ruiz ever since. And the man made a whole bunch of movies. Something around a hundred, if you count the ones he made when he was still in Chile. He leapt to a different level in 1996 when his Three Lives and Only One Death played at Cannes. It starred Marcello Mastroianni in his penultimate screen role and, in typical (if there was such a thing for this filmmaker) Ruiz style, the Italian screen legend played three different characters who ultimately converged. After that movie, Ruiz was a lot more high-profile and got big stars to appear in his films. William Baldwin and Anne Parillaud starred in his paranoia-drenched Shattered Image, and a whole bunch of famous (mostly French) actors (Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart, Vincent Perez, John Malkovich) appeared in his ambitious adaptation of Marcel Proust’s Time Regained.

Although he had just finished production on another literary adaptation (The Night Ahead, based on stories by Chilean writer Hernán de Solar) and was in pre-production for the Portuguese film As Linhas de Torres, Ruiz’s crowning achievement looks like it will be Mysteries of Lisbon, a four-and-a-half-hour opus, based on the novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, that was culled from a Portuguese costume drama miniseries he had made.

Three lives and one death indeed. Señor/Monsieur Ruiz, your singular artistic vision and prolific output will be missed.

Mondo cane (1919-2011)

Probably no one is going to claim that Gualtiero Jacopetti was a visionary auteur. And he certainly didn’t make as many movies as did Raúl Ruiz. His total directorial oeuvre amounts to seven films. And he’s only really remembered for one.

In 1962, back when nobody went to see documentaries at the cinema (this was way pre-Errol Morris and Michael Moore), a non-fiction feature became something of an international phenomenon. Its Italian title Mondo Cane translated as A Dog’s World, but no one felt compelled to use the English version. Indeed, the very title contributed a significant bit of slang to the English-speaking world. “Mondo” became a general purpose adjective that denoted major-ness or all-encompassing-ness. Jacopetti’s obituary in The New York Times cites such formulations as “mondo-sleazo” and “mondo-cheap.” It also notes nods from such admiring filmmakers as Russ Meyer (Mondo Topless) and John Waters (Mondo Trasho).

Mondo Cane, the movie itself, presaged all kinds of reality TV programming—not to mention a fair amount of YouTube content—in the way that it sought out and put on display that weirdest or potentially most shocking behaviors it could find among all sorts of creatures (animal and human) around the world. Much of the attraction was in the ironic contrasts between one scene and the next, as when a California pet cemetery transitioned to a restaurant in Taiwan serving roast dog. It was all just compelling enough to spawn a sequel and a number of imitators.

Part of what made Mondo Cane compelling—apart from the obvious fact that the images were so weird you couldn’t turn away—was the soundtrack. The music was lush and beautiful. In fact, the film was actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song. That would be “More” (written by Riz Ortolani, Nino Oliviero and Norman Newell), which has become a standard recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Nat King Cole to Andy Williams to Jerry Vale. It (along with Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Charade”) lost to “Call Me Irresponsible” from Papa’s Delicate Condition. Arguably, “More” has outlasted the others as far as the popular culture is concerned. The film’s soundtrack was also nominated for a Grammy, and the film itself was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Was Mondo Cane a landmark in cinematic history? More of a curiosity really. But the memory of it evokes an era that many of us look back upon fondly.

-S.L., 25 August 2011

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